Literalism, Fundamentalism, and Inerrancy: The Evangelical Reaction to the Enlightenment

In the last post, we saw how Biblical scholars of the Enlightenment applied its faith in reason and objective study, and its emerging disciplines of history, archaeology, linguistics and the like, to create a series of approaches to the Bible known generally as ‘historical criticism.’ These approaches shared a belief that the the books of the Bible have their own internal histories and they were happy to incorporate any kind of new learning to help them understand these histories, including archaeological discoveries and new theories of the natural sciences, such as Darwin’s theory of evolution. But while this development was, on the one hand, consistent with some strands of older Protestant thought — the focus on the text rather than tradition, the recovery of ancient disciplines of textual criticism, and the ad fontes impulse towards understanding the ancient origins of the faith — it also, on the other hand, flew in the face of other core Protestant ideas, especially its insistence on the authority and clarity of Scripture. And those whose hearts and minds were committed to this side of the Protestant equation were not silent in the face of historical criticism. Today, I’d like to look at this reaction against critical methodologies, which consists of a few different perspectives I’ll gather under the headings of literalism, Fundamentalism, and inerrancy.

On the surface, literalism is a simple enough idea that stems directly from the classic Protestant ideal of biblical clarity. If the Bible, as inspired by God, is meant to be understood, then we should be able to understand it just from what’s on the page: What you see is what you get. But, it’s not quite that simple. The Bible is also ‘clearly’ full of figures of speech (in which words don’t mean what they say — Jesus was not talking about a literal camel fitting through a literal needle) and parables (illustrative stories that aren’t meant to reflect historical events), which cannot be interpreted ‘literally’. This doesn’t bother most literalist interpreters of the Bible; Ernst R. Wendland is representative of this tradition when he defines literalism as “to accept the literal rendering of each sentence unless by virtue of the nature of the sentence or phrase or a clause within the sentence renders it impossible” (Interpreting the Bible, 52 (emphases added)). The difficulty is, however, that different interpreters will have different thresholds for what is considered ‘enough’ of a difficulty to look aside from the ‘literal’ interpretation. I remember one heated debate in a seminary class between two literalists about whether the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16.19ff ‘really happened.’ To one, the story was clearly a parable; but to the other, because the text does not say it is a parable, and Jesus says, “There was a rich man…”, that meant that he had to be referring to a historical incident. This story demonstrates the kinds of questions a commitment to biblical literalism raises from within.

Because of its commitment to the clarity of Scripture – that God intended for the Bible to be able to understood irrespective of intelligence, education or culture – and belief that the Holy Spirit will guide the faithful to proper interpretation, biblical literalism places a great deal of emphasis on the faith of the reader. If there is a difference in interpretation, it must be because one of the interpreters is in spiritual and not just intellectual error. Again citing Wendland, “It is the moral state of the reader, not the intellectual state, that prevents clear understanding of Scripture (cf., 1 Corinthians 2:14; 2 Corinthians 3:14-16; 4:3-4; Hebrews 5:14; James 1:5-6, etc.)” (Interpreting the Bible, 48).

Related to literalism is Fundamentalism. Despite the term’s use today as a catch-all for arch-conservative groups across religions, as a proper noun, Fundamentalism is a distinct movement that first arose in the first two decades of the twentieth century, particularly among American Calvinists. While it was a reaction against ‘liberal’ trends in theology and biblical scholarship as a whole, it chiefly arose in defense of six-day creationism. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Genesis 1 creation story was challenged on at least two sides more or less simultaneously: The discovery of the Enuma Elish, the Bablyonian creation myth that shares many similarities with the Genesis text, and the publication of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. (We might also add discoveries in geology that suggested the earth was far, far older than a literal reading of Genesis would allow.) Two American seminaries, Princeton in the East, and BIOLA in the West, understood these not to be scientific discoveries, but direct assaults on biblical authority and Christian faith. And so, they set out to defend what they understood to be traditional, orthodox Christian understandings of the faith and Bible against the findings of secular disciplines. While Fundamentalism was (and remains) essentially opposed to any historical, scientific, or cultural research or development that does not have the literal interpretation of the Bible as its basic assumption and authority, Fundamentalism was not anti-intellectual. Rather, Fundamentalists put their reason and academic skills to work in order to demonstrate that the biblical text was accurate. This could mean creating alternative geological theories to explain the evidence in light of six-day creation, looking for astronomical events that could explain ‘Joshua’s Long Day’ (Joshua 10), or conducting archaeological studies to find proof for events recorded in the Bible.

Like their classical Protestant forebears, academically-minded Fundamentalists continued to study the Bible using all of the grammatical and historical tools available to them. The study of Hebrew and Greek is of particular importance in these circles, since their beliefs about the Bible make it critical to get the ‘right’ meaning of the text, and there can only be one right meaning. A common metaphor for Fundamentalist exegesis is to “crack the kernel” — there’s a core meaning that we must access by cracking open the shell of language.

All of this leads to a discussion of the concept of biblical inerrancy. This idea goes beyond the belief that the Bible is true, but insists on a specific understanding of how it is true. For the purposes of this post, I will look at the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and its follow-up statements on Hermeneutics (1982) and Application (1986). These documents are not only thoughtful articulations of the doctrine of inerrancy, but also remain authoritative for the Evangelical Theological Society, a major gatekeeper for contemporary Evangelical thought. The Statement defines inerrancy as follows:

Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.

While this belief applies, strictly speaking, only to the original (lost) Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Bible, the document insists that the text “can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy” (Article 10). This definition allows for bibilical literalism, but it does not demand it, and the signatories agree that “history must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth.”

All three Statements still demonstrate the Fundamentalist preoccupation with six-day creationism specifically, and ‘modernity’ more generally. For example, the Hermeneutics statement states, “WE DENY that Scripture should be required to fit alien preunderstandings, inconsistent with itself, such as naturalism, evolutionism, scientism, secular humanism, and relativism” (Article 19). The accompanying commentary reads, about the events of creation through the flood: “These accounts are all factual, that is, they are about space-time events which actually happened as reported in the book of Genesis.” This has led to controversy within the Evangelical academy, since it has a distinctly polemic and political orientation that goes beyond the bounds of the strictly hermeneutical. That said, the Statement has been influential throughout Evangelical Christianity and remains for many a definitive statement of right belief about the Bible.

The ideas discussed in this post are essentially extreme versions of the more traditional Protestant values of the sufficiency, authority, and clarity of Scripture. We can therefore place them in the same place on our integral quadrant map as classical Protestantism.

In light of this, it should be no surprise then that many of the same critiques of Reformation-era hermeneutics apply here as well: No matter how hard we may try, we simply cannot get past the fact that texts – no matter how authoritative we may hold them to be – need to be interpreted. This is due both to the fallibility of the human intellect in understanding what they say, and the fallibility of the human language in which their message is conveyed. The problem with a ‘literal’ reading of the Bible is that it doesn’t exist, at least not in the way literalists want it do. The ambiguity inherent in any human utterance means that we cannot rightly speak of ‘the literal reading’ but only of ‘literal readings’, which can sometimes be very different. Let’s take the battleground passage of Romans 3.21-22 as an example. Both of the following are literal translations of the Greek text, but produce a rather different theology:

  • But now a righteousness from God has been revealed apart from the law, though attested by the law and the prophets: a righteousness from God through faith in Jesus Christ, for all of those who believe.
  • But now God’s justice has been revealed apart from the law, though attested by the law and the prophets: God’s justice through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, for all those who are faithful.

The first reading supports a classically Protestant reading of Paul and the doctrine of ‘imputed righteousness’ — that those who believe in Jesus are declared righteous by God in a kind of legal act. But such a doctrine is absent from the second reading, which supports more contemporary readings of Paul that focus on the genuine transformation of those who are faithful to Jesus into people committed to God’s justice. The important thing for the purposes of this post, however, is that both are literal readings. The text literally contains both (and other) readings by virtue of the natural ambiguity present in the original Greek. Which meaning the author intended is inaccessible to us. This is, for my money, where the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture fails: It is beyond the ability of human language to be entirely clear.

Fundamentalism and biblical inerrancy are more difficult to critique because we run into a question of core beliefs. If the Bible really is the absolute foundation of all truth, and if one therefore believes that the historical accuracy of the Bible in every aspect is required for it to be ‘true’, then there’s no arguing with this. All we can do is point out that this belief is a recent development in Christian history, out of step with the Scriptures themselves, the history of the biblical canon, the witness of the Church Fathers, the Middle Ages and even many of the Reformers. As we’ve seen, throughout Christian history, the Old Testament and New Testament were both understood to be Holy Scripture, but in different ways, and the Old Testament was always interpreted through the “Christ-coloured glasses” we find in the New. Fundamentalism essentially flattens Scripture, making all of it authoritative in exactly the same way. This is a novel development in Christian history. It is also theologically suspect, for it places authority ultimately not in God but in a Book. Sure, proponents affirm that this Book is inspired by God, but it’s a far cry from the New Testament belief that “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” For Christians, the Word was made flesh, not paper or parchment, and so the raising up of the Bible in this way is a kind of idolatry. But for me, the biggest weakness of this perspective is that it simply demands more from the text than it can provide. The Bible is a wonderful collection of books. It contains sagas, legends, oracles, parables, songs, prayers, government decrees, sermons, and personal letters, written in at least three different languages across hundreds of years. In it we hear the voice of God, but we also hear the voices of the dozens of men and women of faith. Taken together, we may hear them as a wonderful harmony, but they don’t speak with the same voice — at times those voices may even be dissonant. If we expect the text to always speak with one voice, and if we expect three-thousand year-old texts to answer all of today’s questions, we are going to be disappointed. As Sarah Bessey, a contemporary Pentecostal spiritual writer has commented about her biblical literalist upbringing:

I think I used to elevate the Bible to being a fourth member of the Trinity. I yearned for systematic theology with charts and graphs and easy-to-decode secrets. I wanted answers and clarity, the cry of the modern reader. But the more I read of the Bible, the more confused I became. So much of the Bible didn’t line up with what I had been taught about the Bible. Old Testament scholar Peter Enns summed me right up when he said that the problem isn’t the Bible, “the problem is coming to the Bible with expectations it’s not set up to bear.” My expectation was divinity, simplicity, infallibility, literalism, easy answers. The Bible wasn’t meant to fulfill those expectations any more than it was meant to receive my worship. (Out of Sorts, Chapter 4)

This assessment has been pretty negative, but I don’t want to simply ‘pile on’ with critique. And so, I will say that, much like the medieval union of Scripture and Tradition, there is something beautiful and attractive about these ways of understanding the Bible, even if I believe they are profoundly flawed and naive. And, there was a time in my early twenties when I quite happily fell into this camp. I had experienced a spiritual rebirth in my late teens and I had found that the more I followed the Scriptures, the better my life became. The Bible had earned my benefit of the doubt when it came to my relationships with God and others, and so I trusted it about everything else too. Moreover, I was trying to understand how my sexuality fit into this faith, and wrestling with the dissolution of my parents’ marriage. I wanted something secure that I could hold on to and Fundamentalism provided that certainty for me. Thankfully, before long I encountered better — and much more interesting and even meaningful – ways of reading the Bible than Fundamentalism could provide, and so I set those assumptions aside. But, I can definitely relate to Sarah Bessey’s words about how so many of us today are longing for answers and clarity in a confusing world. And, if nothing else, the approaches to the Bible discussed today seek to provide answers.

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